Milford Sound, NZ

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Make Up Meatballs

     Make Up Meatballs

There are times in your life (or in your month) when make up relations - I mean, talking, isn't practical. Or your partner won't go there. To the couch, I mean, to talk. That's when you must pull out Make Up Meatballs, especially if watching “The Godfather” on TV has inspired you to cook spaghetti. I won't bore you with reasons behind the need for making up. But lately, it feels like someone's swapped my Pinot Gris for pickle juice. The husband's been equally joyous at my even-temperedness and grace. Rather, he’s less-than- thrilled by my lack of both. As Forrest Gump said, "That's all I have to say about that."

I will, however, give you the recipe for Make Up Meatballs (which Pete cooked and I named). They work a treat when served with a steaming tangle of spaghetti, buttery garlic bread and a green salad and broccoli (the last two cleanse the palate between the second round of bread and sauce). 

Saute garlic in a teaspoon of olive oil. Add a couple tablespoons of canned tomato and garlic pasta sauce (I used a 420-gram can of Pam's tomato and garlic).
Scrape garlic and sauce mixture into a slow cooker with a can of chopped tomatoes and the remainder of the pasta sauce.
Add mixed Italian herbs and a splash of red wine.
Simmer, covered, on low for at least 4 hours along with meatballs (recipe follows).

One-half kilo (1 pound) of ground beef (called mince in NZ)
1/4 cup milk 
½ cup bread crumbs
salt and pepper to taste
teaspoon minced garlic
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup  mozzarella cheese
Italian herbs

Mix mince with all ingredients at once (Pete says, "I threw it in together and mixed it up like Playdough").

Fry meatballs in a "tiny bit of oil" (for Pete, that equates to 3 tablespoons) on  medium heat for 5 - 10 minutes. Let sit 10 minutes, then add meatballs to the slow cooker sauce.

Serve over steaming spaghetti and use to sop up garlic bread. Serve red wine to the adults.

Take your time eating this meal and see what develops. After 15 minutes, the meatballs take effect and your significant other will start talking about how everyone at the table can do nice things for each other. He may even nod as you recite one of the Mom Commandments: "If Mama's not happy, nobody's happy." 
Fiona likes sauce on the side
Mama's happy. Kiss and Make Up the Meatballs, Hon.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Thanks for the Memories - The Wedding Video

                       Thanks for the Memories
                           The Wedding Video

No gift is received in a vacuum (and men, no vacuum is a gift). We get presents while spinning grown-up plates: parent plates, work plates, household plates, spouse-got-laid-off plates. Imagine you’re juggling that kind of crockery, wondering how long before the job comes (or doesn’t); how long before the kids comply (or don’t); how long before you and your spouse climb back aboard the ship-in-the-old harbor… How long before you stop acting, well, um, bitchy.

You’re juggling while doing the breakfast, lunch and dinner dance…the dance you didn’t used to do because at least one of you was out slaying dragons each day and the other pretended she was Queen of the House when she wasn't at work while the kids were in school. In the middle of the pas de deux (step of two), you get the gift that reminds you why you’re here…

My sister, Heather, just sent me a picture montage of our July Spokane wedding. Heather drove more than four hours from a town in the Cascade mountains outside Seattle to attend the event. Since she’s also a talented photographer, I asked if she’d shoot the wedding. 

I don’t yet have the pictures, but now I have the montage, set to Pete and my song – “Easy,” by Lionel Richie. Heather’s photos and the way she edited the slide show capture the mood of the day – I watched the video with teary eyes, nodding my head to say, ‘Yes, that’s how it was.’ The man I so freely expressed love for on our wedding day(s) is the same guy who needs my affection more than ever.

Thanks, Sis. I needed that.

See the video here: Wedding Video

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Parting Gifts

Parting Gifts

I ate toast with Deb’s almond butter this morning. And another piece of toast with her pesto.  The top shelf of our fridge is filled with Deb’s condiments, which I requested just before she left. The idea occurred to me because my Air Force friend, Shelby, years ago presented me with a box of bottles before she and her family moved from Spokane to Colorado. Shelby said it was military tradition – the parting gift of mustards, sauces, chutneys and jams. We used the stuff to flavor, season and disguise food for months. With every splash of soy or dash of Tabasco, we thought of the Baslers.

Condiments are a sweet-and-sour inheritance from moving mates, a pragmatic solution to the question, ‘Do-I-throw-out-this-half-full-jam?’ Don’t pitch it, pass it on…

The night before she and her family left New Zealand to return to Spokane, Deb came by with two boxes of food. Not just ketchup and mustard, but a whole bag of frozen peas, a kilogram of ground beef, unopened bottles of cider and wine... “I hope it’s okay,” she said.

Ask Deb for a cup of milk and you’ll get a dairy farm. During our last girls’ night on the town (a raucous affair that had us sipping a single glass of wine for two hours at a restaurant whose menu is organized into chapters, plus an introduction, notes and epilogue), Deb picked up the tab.

“No, you got it last time,” I said. “It’s my turn.”

“Oh, I don’t keep track of that stuff,” she said.

She also bought our dinner at a Mexican restaurant two nights before she left. Don't tell her I told you.

The best people I know don’t keep score. They’ll give you a spare bed, bicycle, computer, a place to stay, then forget about it. That’s so Deb. So Shelby. So Lee, Leanne, Jennifer, Donna, Paula, Louise, Cheryl… 

We’re rich not because of stuff (never the stuff!) but for what friends teach us – long after we leave our parents' homes, friends instruct us how to be nicer. When they’re gone, we miss their presence – and their subliminal coaching. Any act of kindness I've performed the past two decades is largely the result of what my friends have shown me to do.

I didn’t know Deb before she moved to Mount Maunganui. Mutual friends from Spokane connected us after she got a job doctoring for a practice across the bridge in Tauranga. Deb had decided to fulfill a decades-old desire to live in New Zealand. Because she has a fiancĂ© and an ex-husband in the States, she’d have just one year to live the dream. Over several emails, I suggested places she might consider renting and steered her from neighborhoods I deemed dodgy. I circled the perimeter of a house she found online and told her it looked great.

We developed the immediate kinship two expats form with someone from their old town. We could talk about Spokane’s lake culture, harsh winters, favorite vacation spots and about more important issues – family and relationships.

Deb dove into New Zealand like a Kiwi, just back from overseas, tucks into steak and cheese pie – unreservedly, with gusto. She’d climb the Mount and cycle the Karangahake Gorge before noon, then spend the afternoon paddle boarding in the ocean. She said her adopted home was the first place she felt deep in her bones she belonged. 

Colleagues and patients embraced Doctor Deb, showering her with freshly-baked pies, mountain bike trips and that most precious commodity – time.  

The day she left, with tears in her eyes and a box of tissues tucked into her elbow, she said, “I feel like a baby being ripped from its mother’s arms.”

She paused while hanging a wide-brimmed straw hat in the hallway of her rental house. “You want this? It’s ours, but we're not bringing it.”

I’ll take the hat, but I’d rather you stay.

I write this not just as a see-you-later for my friend, but as a reminder we can all be the spark for someone else. We can revel in our corner of the world rather than lament what we lack. Our sunsets are numbered. Deb’s year abroad has flown for us both – another signal of time eluding our grasp, slipping like sand through a sieve.

A journalism mentor once told our class, “There are two kinds of stories – ‘Going on a journey,’ and ‘The stranger comes to town.’” 

Sometimes, when the stranger comes to town, she takes us on a journey – a trip to rediscover wonder and the possibilities of place.

And when wonder makes me hungry, I smile as I open yet another parting gift - the jar of almond butter in the fridge.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Pampered or Punked? Adventures in Spa Land

    Pampered or Punked? 
   Adventures in Spa Land

If you’re looking for unusual spa treatments, you can have a snake massage in Israel, a beer bath in the Czech Republic or a chocolate facial in Pennsylvania (according to this article: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2012/feb/03/best-weird-spa-treatments ).

Or, if you’re in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty, you can visit Villa Donna Retreat.

Let’s start with what Villa Donna is not: it’s not a villa Under the Tuscan Sun. It’s not a resort. It’s not what one might typically associate with a spa. 
Villa Donna Retreat, Tauriko, Bay of Plenty

Villa Donna consists of a single-story brick house in Tauriko. Just follow the sign set against a bicycle and head for the carport to get inside.

My friends Donna (no connection with Villa Donna), Paula and I have driven here via the Mount and Tauranga for a day of pampering, combined with a cooking class. I’d encouraged my fellow running mates to spend $60 for a voucher on deal website Treat Me. http://treatme.co.nz/. The retreat was billed as a ‘healing, relaxing, enlightening and fun day…’ with ‘2-3 hours in the kitchen making and sampling ridiculously tasty food that’s extremely good for you…’

Two other women are waiting when we arrive. We’ll have at least five hours from start to finish. We spend 45 minutes in the kitchen. We make no food. Instead, we listen to owner Donna Bodell tell us 80 percent of diseases are caused by eating acid-forming foods such as meat, sugar and dairy which promote inflammation. She says eating alkaline foods – vegetables, fruits, seeds, beans, nuts… can stop or reverse these conditions.

Wasn’t the acid-alkaline diet 2013’s fad? Victoria Beckham tweeted about the alkaline diet last year. http://www.webmd.com/diet/alkaline-diets 

Is it possible to ‘alkalise’ our bodies? Articles in mainstream media say no. http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/diet-and-fitness/putting-the-ph-diet-to-the-acid-test-20110707-1h43w.html

I look for a ‘bullshit’ buzzer. Finding none, I open my mouth not to object, but to spoon in a concoction of purple oats, berries, seeds, almond milk and black currant powder. It’s delicious. Though, at $80 for 500 grams, I doubt I’ll buy any currant powder soon.

Donna B. asks if it’s okay if her dogs join us in the kitchen. We say sure. Two fluffy Pomeranian-style pooches enter from the pantry. One of them jumps up beside me on the couch and starts clawing at Paula, as if to say, ‘Love me, pet me now…’

Donna B. talks about exercise and says running will eventually ruin joints. “Those marathoners are crazy. I always ask if they’re running to something, or running from something,” she says.

My friend, Donna, replies, “Actually, the three of us are in a running club. We all run marathons.” 

Donna B. continues, undeterred: “If a client wants a running plan, I send her to a friend up the road. I won’t do it.”

A smirk tugs the corners of my mouth, which is busy chewing a piece of wheat-free almond and raisin bread, made by an artisan baker at the Mount. It’s scrummy, and I want another piece.

We move from running to the politics of sugar. Donna expounds on Donald Rumsfeld’s role in promoting artificial sugars. I wonder, ‘wasn’t Rumsfeld Defense Secretary?’ and then, ‘Why the hell are we getting a lecture about American politics?’ That part’s still unclear, but you can read more about the Rumsfeld controversy here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robbie-gennet/donald-rumsfeld-and-the-s_b_805581.html

Donna delivers a five-minute rhapsody about food steamers. She then serves steamed pumpkin and broccoli mixed with a chick pea curry she squeezes from a packet. “I bought these two for five dollars,” she says.

I duck into a 1970’s or 80’s-style bathroom to use the toilet. Cobwebs dangle from the ceiling and a slightly damp bath-sized towel hangs from a rod by the sink. Am I meant to use this to dry my hands? I wipe them on my jeans instead.

For the next part of our pampering day, we can choose an hour sauna and spa or personal training session. We’ve opted for the former, since we crazy runners get plenty of exercise whilst ruining our joints.

We change into swimsuits in a bedroom whose lavender-colored walls feature drips and dribbles of dried paint. It’s as if a toddler flung buckets around to see what would happen. The room between the sauna and spa is carpeted in a thick shag that reminds me of the 80’s - all big hair and shoulder pads.

We try the sauna first. The temperature’s hot, yet comfortable enough to sit for 15 minutes. Two sprays of orchids adorn the wooden seats. I pick one up and feel it. Fabric.

Villa Donna Spa

Next, we step into the spa pool, where a brown film clings just beneath whirling white bubbles. I snap a picture as we ponder the gunk’s origin. “Maybe they don’t use chemicals, and it’s natural, like what washes up from the sea?” asks Paula, with hope in her voice.

My friends are good sports

Our pampering day ends with a 45-minute massage. Donna B. and her husband,  Gordon, take turns massaging the five of us. The Villa Donna website mentions the couple has studied at massage therapy schools, but doesn’t clarify whether either of them earned a diploma or certificate. 

“Donna has 8 years experience in massage, having studied at the New Zealand College of Massage for a diploma in therapeutic massage.”

“Gordon studied at the New Zealand School of Massage Therapy, specialising in Sports and Relaxation Massage.”

My friends are wary of man massage. I’ve been kneaded by at least a dozen therapists, about a quarter of whom were men. I volunteer for Gordon.

His business card says, ‘Body Wizard.’ Gordon asks me if I have any trouble spots. I mention a dodgy shoulder and say my legs are tight, thanks to running.

“Oh, I hate running,” says Gordon.

“It’s great,” I insist. “I got out on the beach before sunrise this morning at low tide and it was beautiful.”

“Well, joy to the fucking world,” says Gordon.

Do they teach that at massage school? Instruct your client to lay face down with her head in the cradle and say ‘fuck.’ A lot.

Gordon searches the cause of my sore shoulder, first around my neck, then, in my forearm. “Bingo,” he says. Then, “Fuck, yeah.”

I stop counting after eight ‘fucks.’ I have a three (spoken) ‘fuck’ massage maximum. Any more than that, and I’ll out you. Like this.

“Alright, beautiful. I’m going to hold the towel up and have you roll over,” says Gordon.

I do, and Gordo exchanges one towel for a fresh, hot one. It’s a nice touch. Gordon’s hands are firm. They don’t stray to forbidden zones (though he does pull my underwear half-way down my butt as I lay face down). 

He stops in the middle of massaging my hand to examine my wedding ring. "Wow, that's a sparkler," he says.  

He ends with a head and neck massage, pauses at the end, then says, “You are beautiful. Take your time getting up.”

Beautiful, like in a Zen ‘life is beautiful way,’ right? A Buddha figure sits atop a corner desk.  Four-foot-tall Shrek and Donkey plush toys adorn another corner. Siddhartha and DreamWorks are battling for my mind. Or my body.

I quickly pull the robe back on and Gordon re-enters the room. “I want to see if I can fix that shoulder, once and for all.” He steps behind me and asks if the robe is closed at the front. It is. “Good,” he says. “You know, this job would be a hell of a lot easier if I were blind or gay.”

He kneads my shoulder, then kneels before me, his palm parallel to mine. I’m guessing he thinks he’s channeling some kind of energy. “Bingo,” he says. “Fuck, yeah.”

I change and return to the kitchen.  I compare notes with the other two guests, a mother-daughter duo. The daughter had bought the Treat Me voucher for her mum as a Mother’s Day gift. “Sorry, Mum,” she says. The Mum laughs it off. The daughter tells us, “I already know a lot about nutrition – I wish they would’ve asked about that beforehand.”

On the way home, Paula and Donna say their therapist, Donna B. had a very light touch and yanked their underwear into their butt cracks for reasons unknown. Do they teach that in massage school?

My dodgy shoulder got some relief that day (but flared up again the next). Still, I question the wisdom of spending $60 and five hours with strangers at their home in the wop-wops (boondocks). At least my friends and I have something to laugh about.

Joy to the fucking world.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Advice from a Former Chubster

                    To my Preteen Daughter
                 Advice from a Former Chubster

Meatballs and Pitches
I’m at a networking event. A slap-on-a-nametag-and-a-smile affair, where I belly up to the hors d’oeuvres to crunch away nerves, munch because it’s dinner time and graze because maybe someone will talk to me while I guard the food.

I chew and cover my mouth while commending meatballs – “Try one; they’re really good,” or forecasting chicken skewers – “There’s a chance they’ll return…they disappeared pretty fast…” 

Suddenly, the action stops for a word from our sponsors.

The sponsors are two health-related businesses, trainers offering to help us ‘slim down and tone up.’  I finish my meatball and reach for a carrot stick. I bet you could bounce broccoli spears from these people’s abs. One trainer touts a new, exclusive-to-the-area machine designed to ‘reduce the appearance of fat.’  In fairness, both business owners talked of fitness, of reaching goals, of fostering good health and a sense of wellness. I’ll raise my glass of nonalcoholic grape juice and drink to that.

But certain industry buzzwords make me want to throw meatballs rather than eat them. I can feel my left eyebrow creeping towards my hairline when I hear “tone,” (a word too vague to mean much).  Mention, “slim down,” and my teeth clench. Say, “target your trouble spots,” and my c-section scar starts to mambo. That’s almost a workout in itself.

New Intolerance

Fitness-speak has been boxing our ears for decades, but lately, my patience for buzzwords has grown thinner than a fat-free, wheat-free, soy-and-dairy-free sandwich wrap.

I lay blame for this language intolerance at Fiona’s feet. My ten-year-old has started sprouting the odd zit –  a taunting whiteheaded precursor to adolescence. At puberty, formerly reedy girls like my daughter often sprout taffy tummies and marshmallow thighs. The development of their bodies, combined with media messages and the language adults and even their peers use sow seeds of body hyper-consciousness. So, I catch myself rehearsing scripts in my head. What do I tell my daughter about weight, size, strength and appearance?

Mom's Four Tips
  •     Hon, it’s not all about looks. Oh, sure, who doesn’t want to be told she’s beautiful? But the older I get, the more grateful I am for what my body can do. It can chase children, swing a racket, run a marathon. And if I lose those abilities, I’ll line dance, walk, and perform chair exercises with the retirement village gang. How I look won’t matter thanks to our failing eyesight.

  •     Fitness is about performance. How fast and how far can you run? How well can you kick a soccer ball to a teammate? Swing from monkey bars? Throw a basketball through a hoop? Backhand a tennis ball and enjoy a decent rally? Can you swim freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke and even butterfly? Someday, when you’re older, how much can you bench press? Can you dance all night? (like my Mom). Your body allows you to perform these feats. Congratulate it. Celebrate it. Forget about fixing, toning or targeting.

  •     Plan to be active the rest of your life. This is not a sentence, but an opportunity. It’s not someone else’s program, it’s your plan. Sure, a trainer or coach can teach you the basics, provide a re-start after prolonged periods of inertia or injury, or help you prepare for an event, but those sessions are spendy. Ask yourself if your plan is sustainable. Most of my fit friends who are forty or better have found a sport they can’t live without. They’re hooked. Instead of making excuses, they make time to play.

  •     Don’t let anyone (including media) tell you how you’re supposed to look. It’s much easier to stick to a healthy weight because you love (and eat for) your sport rather than getting skinny because you hate (and starve for) your body to meet someone else's ideal. I was a hopeless dieter in my teens, not because I couldn’t see my two chins, but because I hadn’t yet found my mojo ignition switch – running.  I remember overhearing a friend of my parents, when I was 15 years old, say, “Dawn has such a pretty face. It’s too bad she’s not 15 pounds thinner.” While I was a chubby teen, I wasn’t fat enough to break furniture. Still, I ingested the critique faster than a packet of after-school Ho Hos. That first-remembered ‘fatty’ comment has stayed with me longer than my first home, first husband or firstborn… for 28 years. You are marvelous, my dear. Gorgeous to your core, regardless of its shape.

I appreciate and admire many folks who work in the fitness industry. I’ve joined gyms, have engaged in the odd session with a personal trainer and am considering pooling resources with a couple friends to hire a running coach before my next marathon. But the next time someone from the local gym calls my home, asking whether I’d like to ‘tone anything,’ I’ll tell him the only thing I want to tone are my pelvic floor muscles so I can bounce on a trampoline with my kids.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Mother's Day Geisha

                      Mother’s Day Geisha

Start with Soccer

It’s noon Saturday, and we’ve just returned home from a morning of kids’ soccer.  I toast cheese sandwiches for my hungry players while Pete dozes in a front room chair. Before I scamper upstairs to write, Fiona (who’s ten) shows me a friend’s business card, asking, “How much is it for a massage, Mommy? That’s what you said you wanted for Mother’s Day.”

“No honey,” I say. I don’t want you buying it. It’s too much.”

As I climb the stairs, I see eight-year-old Finley though his bedroom window, stuffing string into a homemade Mother’s Day card.

I warned my family en route home that since tomorrow is ‘my day,’ I would pick an activity we could do together. Fiona said, “Oh no, not some kind of exercise!”

Finley said, “We don’t wanna walk anywhere.”

Pete smiled while driving the minivan and said nothing.

“I want us to ride our bikes and go for a nice walk, then have gelato,” I said.

“Oh no!” cried Finn.

“You don’t like gelato?” I asked the boy who once gobbled three servings of Italian ice cream in fifteen minutes: his, the rest of mine and nearly all his sister’s.

“I do, I do! I just don’t wanna walk.”

Keep it Simple, Stupid

This is the long way of saying I want to keep Mother’s Day simple – share it, even, with child-free family and friends. I felt my head nodding in agreement yesterday while reading author Anne Lamott’s musings about Mother’s Day:

"I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure... Mothering has been the richest experience of my life, but I am
still opposed to Mother's Day. It perpetuates the dangerous idea that all parents are somehow superior to non-parents."
Of course we should honor our mothers by acknowledging them more than once each year. I am, indeed, grateful for my mom and for other women who’ve offered kitchen table wisdom, judgment-free advice and a fresh perspective.

Mother's Helpers
Spokane, WA, February, 2010

One of those women is Aunt Cheryl. Cheryl is 64 years old. She’s never birthed children, but was stepmother to two teenagers. I didn’t see a lot of Cheryl growing up. We haven’t had much contact the past few years. News about Aunt Cheryl comes mostly through her sister, my mom.

Cheryl lives in Dayton, Ohio, about four hours by car from where I grew up in Ashtabula.  When I moved to Oxford for college, Aunt Cheryl was just an hour’s drive away. I’d travel through the hamlets of Middletown, Franklin and West Carrolton, past fields of corn and soybeans, before arriving at Cheryl’s home in the suburb of Kettering. I remember feeling like a pampered niece when she treated me to restaurant lunches and showed me to her guest room with high thread count sheets and fluffy duvet. When I suffered a fever that sent me shaking under my cap and shivering beneath my graduation gown, Cheryl brought me to her home to recover.

Memories of a Ten-Year-Old Geisha

Aunt Cheryl was a critical care nurse. She also liked to draw. I remember when she stayed with us in Ashtabula and made up my sister, Heather, and I to look like geishas. I can still see my ten-year-old white face, drawn black eyebrows and painted red lips with peaked Cupid’s bow. Cheryl completed the look with a large, pointy-top bamboo hat. She took photos, later producing lifelike portraits of her nieces, smooth faces of pre-teen probity.

Glamour and Exes

Cheryl’s the Joan Collins of the family, with three ex-husbands, a large wardrobe, and enough makeup to spackle the cast of Dynasty. Her second husband, Byron, would joke that Cheryl and my mom followed a 42-step process to get ready each morning. In my early teens, I would watch, wonderstruck, as Cheryl outlined her naturally bee-stung lips with liner before filling them in with lipstick, and polishing them with gloss.

Cheryl spoke softly and slowly, a kiss of New Orleans in her voice from years of living there with her first husband in her twenties. She liked talking about energy fields and the metaphysical. She brought a copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos – the eighties epic about the origins of the universe – when she visited in Ashtabula.

Spanning the Globe

Cheryl's Christmas and birthday gifts were legendary, procured from trips across the country or around the world from Italy, France and England. She gave me a wooden nutcracker about the same height as Finley one year; the following year, she sent a nativity set requiring a five-foot long table for display.

Mom and I met Cheryl in Thaxted, England, in 1999, for her third wedding. The ceremony took place in a 14th century stone church. We buzzed with excitement during the reception, when we were greeted with a vintage airplane flyover.

Family Tree
Spokane, WA, February, 2010

In the last decade, Cheryl developed a passion bordering on obsession for geneology, spending hours researching every branch, stem and leaf on our family tree. She could talk about dead relatives until you started wishing you could join them yourself.

Like my mom, Cheryl developed breast cancer around age 55. Unlike Mom, Cheryl did not get regular mammograms Her lump went undetected until it had grown to two centimeters. Doctors later found cancer in her shoulder and said she was Stage Four. The malignancy was incurable. But Cheryl could still be treated and continue to live.

And live she did, ditching husband number three, ballroom dancing and finding love again.
50+ Dancesport Challenge, Columbus, Ohio, February, 2012


Then, last November, I got an e-mail from Mom. Cheryl was in the ICU. The cancer had invaded her brain.  She left the hospital. I lost track of her, spinning in a cyclone of engagement, wedding preparations and parenting. A couple days ago, after another message from Mom, I called to learn what was happening. Cheryl returned to hospital. Then hospice. And now, according to the boyfriend, doctors say she has just hours or days to live.

This is where my own guilt about the fact I haven’t seen Cheryl since Sean’s memorial in 2010 sneaks in like a cat through an open window. I’m sad my aunt is (according to Mom) drowsing in a drugged state, unable to reminiscence or talk much at all. I’m sad I’m eight thousand miles from Dayton, Ohio. Shame about my lack of contact, things left undone and unsaid rests on my shoulders as useless and uncool as a pair of 80’s shoulder pads. That’s what Death does, even if He hasn’t yet arrived. His twin, Guilt, starts buzzing in your ears like a housefly evading capture.
Me, Mom, Cheryl - Davenport Hotel, Spokane, February, 2010

Big Hearts 

But this isn’t about me. It’s about Cheryl. And all the other aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends whose hearts are big enough to care take someone else’s kid.

My Mother’s Day wish isn’t for flowers, chocolates or a restaurant meal, though I like all three. What I want is to drag my husband and two small fries to the top of the Mount. And eat gelato afterward.

And I want to think about my mom and Aunt Cheryl, and all the other men and women who’ve added flavor, love and a sprinkle of glamour to my life. The ten-year-old geisha in me will never forget.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Year of the Ratbag

                  Year of the Ratbag

2014 is the Chinese Year of the Horse. But in our house, it feels more like the Year of the Ratbag. ‘Ratbag’ is Kiwi slang for mischievous child. The first time I recall hearing that term was in church, when our priest referred to kids (possibly his) as ‘ratbags.’ It sounded slanderous, but the longer I’ve lived in New Zealand, the more normal ‘ratbags’ seems – kind of like calling children ‘rugrats,’ in the States.

My eight-year-old son, Finley (or Finn-bo, or Finn, or whatever we're calling him these days), is the epitome of ratbag. With his number four clippered hair (courtesy of my husband, his stepdad, Pete), and a gap-toothed grin, he oozes ratbag sensibility. Or lack of sensibility. He’s still not a great sport – trying to make up rules to games that favor him: Finn swiped Pete in the face while they were playing handball in the driveway after Pete told Finley he’d lost the point. Finn cried. Ratbag.

Finley asked for another roll at dinner the other night (‘with lots of butter, please!’) after everyone else had finished eating. He slowly savored his bread while the rest of us cleaned up. Ratbag. He searched frantically the next morning for a ball to bring to school when he should’ve been doing something meaningful, like brush his teeth, or (for once) put on underwear. The kid is Constant Commando. Ratbag.

Finn loves parading naked in his wiry little bod. A couple weeks ago, just after he’d had a shower, I sat on Finley’s bed while he searched for pajamas. Suddenly, Finn turned and started a tiny hip buck that sent his Little Man flip-flopping like a trout in a bucket. “Zumba, Zumba, Zumba…” he sang. Resistance was futile. “Finley,” I laughed. “Get dressed.” “Zumba, Zumba, Zumba,” he replied.

I’m mindful that someday, both kids will leave us and start new lives with loves of their own. Finley has already started planning. “I want to have kids,” he’s told me. “Two or maybe four. How does that happen again?” I repeat what I’ve already explained several times, about the penis and the vagina, sperm and egg… Instead of snickering, Finley looks at me earnestly, asking, “How many times do I hafta put it in? Once? Twice? I wanna make sure I get kids….”

Oh, Ratbag.

Maybe Finn will woo his future bride by singing. Only recently have we started noticing Finley’s strong set of lungs is good for something other than yelling. His favorite song is a version of The Eurythmics, Sweet Dreams, which he belts with vibrato:

                These people are made a’ me…
                Made a’ me to disagree…

He asked me what the real words were, and when I sang them, he said, “I don’t get it. Why do they want to be abused?”

For many years, I wondered what atrocity I’d committed to deserve a Ratbag like Finley. He’d whine and cry, trying to convince me to buy him something, or give him another cookie, or whatever… He’d fight Fiona and snicker when I called him on it. He still does that stuff. But the incidents are either dwindling in number or duration, or I’m more tolerant because I have a supportive husband, or because Finley’s honing his charms. All of those. Finn bats his long fringe of eyelashes, blinks those baby blues like a character in a Pixar movie with saucer-sized eyes. I stare at them. At his freckled nose. You charmer. Now, go clean your room.

More and more, I marvel at his Finn-ness. Finn-bo's a smart cookie who learns quickly - when he wants to. I’m jealous. I was never an eight-year-old boy with oceans of confidence (“Why do I need to keep going to tennis club, anyway? I’m already good at playing,” Finley said when I asked him if he wanted to continue one of his many sports). Finn stood up on a surfboard the first time he tried; he made it onto a competitive soccer team this year; he’s starting to play simple songs on guitar after just a few lessons; he works above national standards in reading, writing and math. Excels at art. Ratbag.

While he’s probably not tops in his class, the best player on the soccer field or the first to cross the line in a race, he’s near the front of the pack. Finn-bo’s competitive streak has him running, red-faced, trying to top the other kids. Or me. On the beach, Finley says, “Let’s race.” We do, and the kid beats me in a short sprint. “I wasted you, Mom,” he says.